RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 8: Sam Raimi’s “Oz, The Great And Powerful” (2013)


The Players…

James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King and Tony Cox.

The Story…

Circus magician and professional scoundrel Oscar Diggs is magically transported to the Land of Oz. Mistaken for the prophesied wizard send to vanquish the three witches manipulating the land, Diggs reluctantly uses his illusionist skills and resourcefulness to become the savior the residents have been hoping for. Hell, beats the circus racket, as well as all those piles of elephant poop.

The Rant…

I’ve never been much for fantasy films. The Lord of the Rings trilogy never caught my attention. I’m not a Game of Thrones viewer. A good portion of Disney’s bread-and-butter animation films are lost on me. I recently went to a viewing of Maleficent (the kids dragged me to it. Oh, the burdens of dadhood) and found it meh. My brain just isn’t wired to go along for the ride amongst dragons and wizards and elves and the rampant pixie dust imagination of your average male sixth-grader (admit it, a Piers Anthony book is kicking around in your attic somewhere. Admit it!).

Of course there are always exceptions. There’s gotta be, otherwise you have nothing to measure the silly against. I’m an unabashed fan of How to Train Your Dragon and when the sequel comes out this summer, me and the stepkid are gonna be at the multiplex already frothing with popcorn. The Neverending Story of my youth was pretty cool, and still holds up to this day, even with the Kajagoogoo soundtrack. Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is a perfect film (don’t argue). Ah yes, and of course, there’s The Wizard of Oz.

The movie has been pleasing audiences for 75 years now. 75! Its songs alone are the earworms a thousand musicals later to contend with, no part in fact to Judy Garland’s pipes. Its ridiculous Technicolor sets are so beyond gaudy they’re mesmerizing. And the acting’s pretty good too. It’s not really a fantasy film at heart—it’s a Broadway musical gussied up with a big budget and ever bigger sets. It’s kind of laughable now to think that Oz was a flop at the box office. It was, and only through the miracle of television that the movie is now heralded as the classic it is today.

Why do I mention all this crap and what relevance does it have on this week’s movie selection (besides the prequel crap, and the setting, and the characters and the you get the idea)? Based on the above goodies from the original, you can’t get lightning to strike twice, no matter how hard you try. Yet I don’t think director Raimi was really trying to recapture the childish wonder of 75 years past. He’s an eccentric filmmaker (read: Evil Dead and Spider-Man movies), and with an odd view of the world through the camera lens lends itself to making some pretty odd movies; curious and demented movies this side of Tim Burton (and at least Burton tried to make weird relevant). Raimi’s vision of Oz was less than a wondrous fantasyland of munchkins and ruby slippers, but more of a fever dream acid trip of he demanded the world of Oz should be. This film wasn’t retconning the original Oz, but rather blazing a trail through weirdness, childhood be damned. Actually, it was more like stomping a trail down the yellow brick road…

Oscar “Oz” Diggs (Franco) is a middling circus magician circa the early 1900s. He’s less of a magician and more of a con man, a rapscallion and an self-entitled, self-important buffoon. Always scheming to get a bigger piece of the pie, grabbing the most desirous of women, demanding the spotlight and (surprise) never wanting to get his hands dirty. He’s always got his head in the clouds, just waiting for that lucky break that’ll escalate him to his notion of “the big time” and out of his penny ante outfit. His dreams may be big, but Oz’ prospects are small.

One day, after a particular nasty run-in with the suitor of one of the many naïve girls Oz tries to woo (I gotta gets me a few music boxes), he escapes his rightly deserved beating by hitching a ride in a hot air balloon. His getaway is clean, until he gets scooped up in one of those unpleasant Kansas twisters (a twister, Dorothy!) and thrown clear over the rainbow.

Oz lands in a multihued landscape of bizarre creatures, exotic flora and Mila Kunis doffed in scarlet. Where the hell is he? Why, fans of the first film knows this is the merry old land of Oz, and Oz himself is naturally confused as well as delighted. This world shares his name, as well as what the witch Theodora (Kunis) tells, also a prophecy foretold by her sisters. A wizard will arrive from lands afar to rescue the citizens of Oz from a very wicked witch (this world seems to run lousy with witches) as it is written. Guess who’s the lucky contestant?

Of course no hero should go so foolishly into battle without some trusty friends in tow. After saving his life, Finley (Braff) the flying monkey pays a life debt to Oz and will be his trusty servant, whether his wants it or not. And after demonstrating some of his “magic” to the crippled China Girl (King), he gains a rather delicate of body but strong of heart cheerleader in the best sense. Finally, Glinda (Williams) the Good Witch (continuity!), who naturally leads the trio along on their quest to the straight and narrow.

Now Oz the Great, as he’s been shunted into the title, must now not only be worthy of literally living up to his name, but also let a little humility into his ego while simultaneously using his cunning as an illusionist to stop the spell of dark magic from corrupting the land of Oz…

From the get-go Oz has Raimi’s eccentricities firmly in place. The prologue alone is a good primer for any of his works. The cartoonish nature of his lead, the rubbery dialogue and, of course the outlandish nature of the plot going joyfully off kilter. All we need now is Bruce Campbell (wait! We do! Let’s play “spot the cameo!”).

Oz sure is a pretty film. There is heavy duty CGI going on here, like all the sets were designed with Prang in mind. It’s almost a bit too much to take. But there are nice touches with the analog bits that do the original film justice (I’m a sentimental sap). The movie tries to match the explosive brightness and kaleidoscopic fever dream that was the original film. It succeeds in many places, but it’s like there’s too much green screen. Is it intentional? It makes the movie appear kind of pulled from a comic book, that or a Maurice Sendak story. Thanks to that splash there is an oddly organic plot development following along here, and since it was based on a mishmash of L Frank Baum’s books (a more accurate interpretation of the writer’s somewhat brooding series), Raimi played fast and loose with his colorful toys.

On another hand, the acting’s a lot of fun. I mean a lot of fun. It’s the best thing the film’s got going. Raimi has a knack for bringing out the best in his cast, and Oz is no different. Franco here is equal parts charming and greasy, sporting the classic “I’m not from around here,” manqué personality. He’s got a good endearing vibe around him, despite being a charlatan. After all, his trip through Oz is a kind of voyage of self-discovery, and discovering who you are and who you can truly be is the classic stuff of fairy tales. He’s a thief with a heart of gold, but it takes time to see it.

Braff and King’s characters are the yin-yang to Franco’s hero. Braff is amusing as Franco’s aide-de-camp. He’s not funny (not like John Dorian funny, but close), but amusing, adding just a touch of empathy for our dauntless Oz. Then there’s the tragic figure that is China Girl. King’s voice acting is so sweet and heartbreaking as the voice of Oz’ consciousness you gotta have a heart of ice to not be touched even a little bit.

I think the three actresses playing the witches—Kunis, Weisz and Williams—are the trifecta of cool. They’re kind of like a more benevolent trio of Weird Sisters, a la Macbeth. All three steal the show, even if it takes Kunis’ charater to play catch up in the third act of the film. Glinda was pretty badass in a gentle way (as well as respectful of Billie Burke’s iconic role), whereas Evanora chews scenery with aplomb. Some pretty cool witches I say.

One of Oz’ biggest issues is that, well, there’s no sense of wonder here. It’s just a thinly veiled action movie. The fantasy ends with the aforementioned backdrops. However there are those moments, which echo the original film that make this version seem worth our attention. Oz is a lot of contradictions rolled into one story. It might puzzle the casual filmgoer not acquainted with Raimi’s style of cinema, but it can entrance as well as repel, kind of like the smell of gasoline (how’s that for simile?).

Like with my list of fantasy films I could get behind, it’s hard to distance yourself from the spell of nostalgia in giving this film a frank assessment. Ostensibly, this is a kid friendly movie. On another hand, Raimi’s left of center humor as well as direction shove the film into the right of the PG-13 crowd and up. It’s always about what is lacking rather than what is fresh, and which may or may not be better, and the audience Raimi is aiming for here is rather schizo. I dunno. Oz left me scratching my head in places and cheering in others. But it wasn’t terrible—there were far too many redeeming factors in the acting that could excuse the plot. I guess all I can say was I wanted a modern day taste of what the classic three-quarter century years young classic did to me when I was a pup.

Right. Being terrified of flying monkeys.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It ain’t half bad. It’s definitely entertaining in a rather difficult way, but fun nonetheless. Just don’t expect any true movie magic. Or songs.

Stray Observations…

  • “I think green is my favorite color.” Directorial meta?
  • Yep. Flying monkeys are still freaky, and not that funny.
  • “Let’s go kill ourselves a witch!”…tra-la-la. A keen example of Raimi’s style of humor. Sorry kids.
  • Does Danny Elfman have to score only weird films? He does a great job, but it’s not gonna win any Oscars. He might be onto something.
  • “Remind me to show you sometime.” Smooooth.
  • “The only person you can’t fool is yourself.” And that’s one to grow on.

Next Installment…

We head off to the red planet courtesy of John Carpenter (yay!) to go bust the Ghosts of Mars.


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